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The South China Sea threat to ASEAN – highlighted at ICONAS/CARUM/JPAS conference


International Conference on ASEAN Studies (ICONAS) 2016

The keynote speaker Tan Sri Dr. Munir Majid warned that ASEAN is at risk to lose its influence in the region. “ASEAN never fails”, he said, “but it also never succeeds”. A lot of good things happen in ASEAN, but the association often moves in circles rather than ahead. The role of ASEAN these days, observed Tan Sri Munir, will be measured against its behaviour towards China in the context of the South China Sea conflict. Although some critiques argue that China banks on a disunited ASEAN, Prof. Huang Jing from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore made a different case. ASEAN-China relations, he said, "is a grand reality". The People’s Republic actually sees ASEAN as a buffer as it prefers to speak to one body instead of dealing with ten different opinions. Nevertheless, with China’s newly gained capabilities and a shifting world order “ASEAN’s neutrality is becoming more and more substantial”- to walk the fine line between the big powers.

ICONAS 2016 (International Conference on ASEAN Studies)- the third of its kind - was held at the University of Malaya’s Asia-Europe Institute (AEI) on July 21st & 22nd, and jointly organized by CARUM (Centre for ASEAN Regionalism University of Malaya), the Department of International and Strategic Studies (JPAS) and KISEAS (Korean Institute of Southeast Asian Studies). Both national and international experts on ASEAN engaged in lively discussion over two days. The major themes of this year’s conference were Malaysia’s approach to regionalism, ASEAN and its dialogue partners, ASEAN-Korea relations and the future of ASEAN centrality.

The focus on Malaysia’s approach to ASEAN was a response to a recent comment from Singapore’s Kishore Mahbubani that international analyses of ASEAN do not pay sufficient attention to what commentators from the ASEAN region are saying. The first panel of the conference brought together a wide range of Malaysian commentators to consider how best to develop the comparative study of Malaysian regionalism. ASEAN is of special importance to Malaysia, as Mr. Mohd Suhaimi Ahmad Tajuddin from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia highlighted. Different countries choose different approaches during their chairmanship. With ASEAN being "the cornerstone of Malaysian foreign policy”, the government’s agenda in 2015 was driven by the idea to further develop the association. Malaysia envisioned an ASEAN that is more significant, for its people and the economy - and which has stronger institutions, contributes to regional security and peace and is a global player.

This continues a well-known trajectory. It is, in fact, in the spirit of Malaysia’s first generation ASEAN politicians. Dato’ M. Redzuan Kushairi highlighted the influential role of Malaysia’s foreign policy leader, Tun Muhammad Ghazali bin Shafie - commonly known as King Ghaz – who spoke of the kampong spirit of regionalism and emphasised the critical importance of the close personal relationships between the initial ASEAN members. This closeness, said Dato’ Redzuan, seems to be missing among the current ASEAN leadership.

Among the many lively contributions to this panel – which included enlightening comparisons with regionalism in Africa and Europe – Prof. Datuk Shamsul Amri Baharuddin from the Institute of Ethnic Studies at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia insisted that Malaysia, in contrast to many other countries, has avoided forced assimilation and has instead created social cohesion – and this preference was evident not only in this country’s domestic nation-building, but also in Malaysia’s approach to region-building. The challenge of creating a regional identity in Southeast Asia, according to Dr. Roy Anthony Rogers (JPAS), can be better understood if we look to such other regions as Central Asia. Southeast Asia is far more diverse in terms of religions, languages and historical experience. ASEAN is not like Central Asia, "sandwiched" between two great powers - China and Russia - but Malaysia's long preferred moderate policies have been an important basis for the careful diplomatic process of region security, helping to keep the great powers involved in the region at balance.

The second Conference Panel on ASEAN’s Dialogue Partners included a tough assessment of India’s relations with ASEAN. Both Assoc. Prof. Jatswan S. Sidhu (JPAS) and Dr. K. S. Balakrishnan (JPAS) saw India as missing out on the opportunities in Southeast Asia. Indian does not prioritize ASEAN and has no clear strategy for the region – which is also reflected in the trade figures. In the case of Japan the panel heard divergent views. Bunn Nagara of the Institute of Strategic & International Studies (ISIS) argued that although Japan has lost its role as a regional leader. “Prime Minister Abe’s declared aim of upgrading relations with ASEAN countries is unlikely to be substantive”. Even at the height of its influence, Japan was a “one-dimensional power” - with its strength being solely economic. Its economic dominance has now been overtaken the economic emergence of BRICS countries, especially the rise of today’s China. Dr. Malcolm Cook from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore was more positive about Japan - noting it has the best intelligence on maritime movements in East Asia (due to powerful radar capabilities); strong tri-lateral ties with Australia, India and the US; and regular military exercises in the region.

Consideration of Korea-ASEAN relations was a highlight of the conference. Korea has forged strong ties with ASEAN over recent years. It may help that Korea has undergone the development trajectory during the last four decades which most ASEAN countries are still engaged in - as Dr. Lee Choong Lyol, Korean Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Korea University suggested. In concrete terms, the ties between Korea and ASEAN are growing significantly. ASEAN is the second largest trade partner for Korea. It is the third largest investment partner and an important source of migrant labour for Korea, and in 2013 almost 5 million ASEAN citizens visited Korea. In the other direction, Korea is ASEAN’s fifth largest trading partner and one of the major investment partners. Another important source of influence is Korea’s soft-power - this ranges from an attractive tourist destination, to K-Pop, and includes food, TV series and other cultural goods. At the same time, Koreans enjoy studying in ASEAN countries and settle here for their retirement.

These ASEAN-Korea developments, so it was argued in the final Conference Panel, have geo-strategic potential. Opened by Tan Sri Munir, the main concern of the last session at ICONAS 2016 was the future of ASEAN centrality. Munir described ASEAN as spineless in the South China Sea dispute – for instance, in Kunming on June 14, 2016, when the ASEAN foreign ministers withdrew their statement critical of China. In response Prof. Anthony Milner (AEI) wondered if it was perhaps better to issue a statement and then withdraw it rather than issuing no statement at all – we need to be realistic about what small countries like Cambodia and Laos can do in opposition to a neighbour that is now a great power.

There was no questioning, however, that ASEAN is currently under much pressure. Dr. Lee Poh Ping, from the institute of Institute of China Studies at the University of Malaya, suggested – after asking what is meant exactly by ÁSEAN centrality – that it might be helpful now for ASEAN to strengthen its relationships with middle-powers. Korea’s track record in the region was well demonstrated in the previous Conference Panel, and Lee observed that Korea not only has a strong relationship with China but also carries ‘no baggage in the region’. This is important - the big powers, by contrast, have either fought wars in the area or struggle with the stigma of seeming to wish to re-instate their previous supremacy. Australia, according to Lee, might also be a middle power that could offer more help to ASEAN in its quest to maintain centrality. It has been an ASEAN Dialogue partner for many decades and has strong trade and education links, and a special security relationship with Malaysia and Singapore. It is a Western liberal country, and there may be advantages as well as challenges in its US alliance. At least Australia can get a hearing in Washington.

ICONAS 2016 took place at a time not only when ASEAN is challenged by the South China Sea court ruling in The Hague, but also – as CARUM Director, Prof. Azirah Hashim observed – when regional endeavours elsewhere in the world are under threat, particularly with the traumatic Brexit decision.



Last Updated: 29/10/2018